In a piece about Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel Falling Man in the New York Review of Books, Andrew O'Hagan took DeLillo to task for his inability or unwillingness to put a human face on the event, to "bring us to know what might have been going through the minds of the hijackers as they met their targets." Well, this one's for you, O'Hagan. In The Garden of Last Days, Andre Dubus III (author of House of Sand and Fog) dispenses with post-modern defense mechanisms, instead opting to humanize everyone. Dubus seems determined that every character in this over-brimming novel contain either part of the question or part of the answer to that plaintive and ignorant post-9/11 plea, "Why do they hate us?"
The novel centers on a Florida strip club where a dancer, April, has reluctantly brought her three-year-old daughter to work for the evening (the babysitter fell through). April is a gold-hearted stripper determined to make enough money to buy a house of her own—so when a strange, high-rolling Saudi man wants to take her to a private room and pay her exorbitant sums just to talk, she goes along with it. While she is sequestered away with Bassam—who is, naturally, one of the 9/11 hijackers—her daughter is abducted from the club by a depressed, despairing drunk who thinks he is rescuing the little girl from the Gomorrah of the strip club.
It's all very fraught.
One character longs to reunite with his estranged wife, but can't let go of fantasies about his favorite stripper. A bouncer at the strip club drinks and watches television, and flips through 200 channels and can't find anything to watch. An elderly woman has a panic attack while driving and turns on the radio to calm herself down: "Everything is as it should be, [the DJ's voice] seemed to say. You simply need to listen, dear listener. Sit and do nothing."
This is a mere taste of the easy irony with which Dubus stuffs his novel. The book is so puffed up and portentous that it makes September 11 feel like a cheap literary inevitability: In The Garden of Last Days, the towers fall because they can't bear the weight of any more symbolism.